Monday, May 23, 2011

Through an Extra's Eyes

This is a bit of a special entry. Instead of my usual rants, I've gotten the incredible chance to interview a cast member of my favourite musical production ever. I give you...

Åbo Svenska Teater's Les Misérables, through the eyes of a professional extra!

“I was like a kid in a candy store who was paid to eat everything!”

According to Valde Wallenius, a 17-year-old vocational school student from Finland, that’s how it feels like to be a cast member in the most popular musical in the world. Wallenius works as an extra in Åbo Svenska Teater’s acclaimed production of Les Misérables. In exception of the child actors, he is the youngest person working in the production.                     
Working in Les Mis has been, to put it mildly, an amazing experience for Wallenius – even though he could hardly be called an expert on the subject when he started.
         “Les Misérables was my first time working in a theatre, and also my first real job! I didn't really know much about it beforehand. I had heard some of the music, but, amusingly, everything I knew about the story at the time was from a Donald Duck comic.
         Right from the first time I saw and heard Les Mis, I loved it. Getting the job felt really good because it was my first, but after watching the show for the first time I knew I was going to be a part of something great, something that was going to be successful. I felt, even back then, like I had been blessed by someone higher above.”

How did a 17-year-old with no theatrical experience become a part of a professional musical production?
         “I was playing video games one night when my father walked into the room with a newspaper, saying ÅST was looking for extras for this show called ‘Les Misérables’. He thought I would be interested. I took a look and said ‘maybe’, though that's usually what I say if I mean ‘yes’. So I sent an e-mail to the theatre.
         When I got to the theatre for an interview there was one other guy waiting outside. Another guy turned up after we had walked in – it didn't really feel like people were lining up for this. We met Georg Malvius, the director of the production, and he asked us some questions: experience in acting and singing, how often we were available, what we knew about Les Mis…
         Some days later about a dozen would-be extras gathered to watch the show so we would get an idea about it. I think if we still wanted to have the job after seeing the show, and weren't absolutely incompetent in the training, we got it.
         After a couple of weeks of rehearsals I met Malvius on the way home. We talked a little as we walked: he told me I had done a good job and asked me if I wanted to be one of the extras who would be on in almost every performance. I accepted this without hesitation. It felt great! Getting the job was one thing, but being told by the director that I did a good job and was signed up to do all shows was just priceless.”

Wallenius signed up to be one of the ‘standard four’ as they called it: one of the four extras who were on in every performance while the others took turns. He did three or four shows per week.
         “I didn't have as many onstage appearances as I had hoped for; there were only six of them. That includes a guard in the intro, a priest taking the beds in and out in Fantine's Death, a soldier attacking the barricade and a farmer in Epilogue.
         I had a couple more things to do, but they’re behind the stage and no one sees them. I didn't have any speaking lines, the only official time I open my mouth is in Epilogue. I did, however, scream a lot in The Runaway Cart from offstage.”

In this production, during the second act, the audience sees the both sides of the barricade: the revolutionaries die, but so do the French soldiers on the other side of the stage. Wallenius plays one of the soldiers.
         “Haha, the crown jewel of my career! I'm glad that Malvius took a different approach in the war scenes, otherwise I wouldn't have done anything for two thirds of the show!”
         Does it get boring to play a dead guy?
         “It doesn't, really. I sometimes had one eye open. My hat and the darkness assured that no one could see it, and from my position I could see almost the entire stage. I knew what was going on the entire time. There was something different every day that kept me from getting bored most of the time.”
         But trying to look dead is very difficult sometimes, if not always.
         “When Gavroche was in the area you were never safe! The three Gavroches we had got shot very differently. One fell by my feet, sometimes on them, sometimes just touching my boots. The second fell right on me. He kneeled beside me and dropped like a cannon ball, usually on my belly or chest… but sometimes he hit some of my softer parts down below, ouch. The third, however, didn't fall to the ground; he kept standing even after being shot twice.”
         And the hardships of playing a corpse don’t end there…
         “After Christmas Joachim Thibblin was often gone, so Markus Virta was the stand-in as Thénardier. He was good at the role, but there was something else... When he was in the sewers and took my watch as loot while singing, he sat right on top of me in a rather suggestive way. If anyone had said that it looked like we were doing something... specific, I wouldn't really have been able to deny it. Also, both Thibblin and Virta usually spat on me while singing. Especially Markus, it was almost raining. And Joachim slapped me every now and then, come to think of it.
         So… If you you're good with sitting about twenty minutes on the ground completely still, getting spat on, getting slapped, being a pillow for dying kids, getting carried away and being sexually harassed by singing maniacs twice your age… then you're good to go!
But I was good with all that. It was my job after all.”

Wallenius doesn’t have a bad word to say about his workmates, though:
         “There were so many wonderful people working along with us who always kept the spirit up for the rest! But almost all of them were overshadowed by our Javert’s, Sören Lillkung’s, pure skill and friendly personality. Never have I met a more open and friendly person. If I had to point out one person who people would look at to get new energy from, it would be him. I’ve learned a lot from him and he was one of the things that gave me inspiration to go on.”

Wallenius is a bit of a lifesaver himself, rescuing one of his co-workers from complete embarrassment. On Saint Lucy's Day the theatre was gathered to celebrate, and Markus Virta granted Wallenius a diploma in which he said:
         “This person has during the autumn worked as an extra in Les Misérables and gotten a complete check on the show. In some cases he has a better check on what the actors are doing then the actors themselves. During one show Rune Sæter [who plays Enjolras] begun changing costume for his last entrée despite having another scene to do. The extra, however, reminded him about the scene and therefore saved Rune's hide.”
         “It does sound a lot more romantic than it really was”, Wallenius adds. ”One day when I was changing to my farmer outfit during Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, I saw Rune coming down the hall. As he walked past me I stopped him and asked a bit sarcastically: ‘Are you supposed to be here?’ He was quiet for a couple of seconds, said ‘Thanks, Valde!’ and went back. I didn't really think much about it, but later learned that it was a bigger deal than I had guessed! Rune told me that he had never forgotten to go to a scene before.”

What does the future have in store for Wallenius?
         “I hope to act in more musicals in the future. I haven't really decided what I want to do later in my life yet, but at the moment I'm planning on that.
         I will play Les Miserables again of course, we’ll perform the show again next autumn. And I would most certainly like to be in Les Mis in the future, too, if I got the chance. Who I would play? Enjolras, maybe. He's a great character and I like his vest. Or I could just be in the ensemble, as Babet or Brujon – those two are badasses. Or Thénardier… But only ÅST's Thénardier, not the drunken clown he is in other Les Mis productions!”

Any last words?
         “I have learned a lot by working together with the wonderful people ÅST gathered to make Georg Malvius’s vision come to reality. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world! And love to all you Les Misérables fans out there for your support. We’ll be back in the autumn.”


  1. Sounds very exciting!

  2. Poor guy, having people abuse him in the name of revolution.

    His job sounds really fun, though, to be honest. Best of luck to him on his musical career! :)